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OU Department of African, African American Studies holds freedom vigil in Unity Garden supporting Julius Jones

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Julius Jones Freedom Vigil

Speaker addressing the crowd at Julius Jones Freedom Vigil at the Unity Garden on Oct. 15.

Several OU students, faculty and staff listened attentively in the Unity Garden on Friday afternoon as speakers at the Julius Jones freedom vigil held by OU’s Department of African and African American Studies gathered in solidarity with Jones and in defiance of his placement on death watch.

Department staff and faculty, members and supporters of the Justice for Julius movement and Jones’ sister, Antoinette, spoke at the vigil. They emphasized the need for action as Jones’ execution date, set for Nov. 18, draws near. Speakers repeatedly emphasized the injustice of the death penalty for a crime many believe he did not commit.

Julius Jones was a student at OU when he was convicted of the murder of Paul Howell in 1999 and sentenced to death. His story reached national audiences through an episode of Viola Davis’ docu-series “The Last Defense.” Jones was put on death watch Friday and has a clemency hearing scheduled on Oct. 26.

Department Chair and Regents’ professor Karlos Hill and African and African American Studies adjunct instructor Sharri Coleman opened the vigil with a “solemn observance” through the song "I Don’t Feel No Ways Tired." Hill said it was important for those present to start the vigil of asserting their support for Jones.

“I’ve had the good fortune to sit across from Julius and talk with him, look into his eyes and he tells me, ‘I did not do that,’” Hill said. “‘I would never do that. I am not a perfect human being, but I have never killed someone. I was with my family on the evening of that murder. I did not know Paul Howell, I did not kill Paul Howell.’ I believe him. His family believes him. The Justice for Julius movement believes him, and we will not — and I repeat, not — let an innocent man be put to death, and we say nothing. We do nothing. We bear no witness.”

Oklahoman anti-racism activist and Oklahoma Christian University Law student Jess Eddy said white students, staff and faculty have “an outsized burden” to stand between Jones, his family and the systems of injustice and white supremacy. He said that white supremacy “sunk (its) claws” and imprisoned Jones in “the dungeon” that is death row.

“He was just like you: a student here, thirsty to learn, to read, to play basketball, to enjoy this sun,” Eddy said. “This breeze, this grass, and all of those things have now been denied to him for 22 years. A breeze between his fingers. The sun on his forehead. The voices of his loved ones. I asked Antoinette, ‘How long has it been since you have laid a finger on your brother?’ Seventeen years. Seventeen years since Julius has been able to be hugged by his sister or his mother.”

Eddy said after the event that it was important for this vigil to take place in the Unity Garden because Jones’ status as a student at OU has not changed.

“(OU) is where Julius should be,” Eddy said. “I know that when he is released, he plans on getting his education, and we want him to know that he is welcome here. We want him to be able to move on with his life. He’s dreamed about it, his education, and being able to be a student that he was never really able to be.”

Jabee Williams, an Oklahoma City artist and supporter of the Justice for Julius movement, said he wanted to remind that Jones “isn’t just a campaign or movement” and that, as human beings, it is “our responsibility” to take care and look after one another.

“Julius will call me and talk to me and I always have to remind myself to try to be sensitive to his needs,” Williams said. “I remind myself to not always, whenever we talk, (to) make it about me. Just like a friend does, he ends up helping me in my situation. And I’m helpless in his.”

After the vigil, Williams said that Jones has “a lot to offer” to the world and is all about “empowering the next generation.”

“I have a music program I run at the Boys and Girls Club in Oklahoma City and one of (my) students wrote him a letter,” Williams said. “I happened to be on the phone with him one day when she was there — she’s (around) 12 years old — and he spoke to her and gave her some encouragement. You would have thought she met Michael Jackson.”

Williams said this in response to Antoinette Jones’ story about her brother. She said that her brother “truly loves education,” giving back and someday wants to help at-risk youth. She said she knows him to be an innocent man because he was at home with her “disappointed in (her) older brother and (her) for eating a lot of his birthday cookies.”

Now that her brother is on death watch, Jones said that any correspondence of words of encouragement to her brother are appreciated.

“I need my people in Oklahoma to stand up for my brother,” Jones said. “I need the people in Oklahoma to stand up for Julius Darius Jones because he is one of you. He is a Sooner like all of you. If you could write our governor and let him know to commute Julius’ sentence to time served and a release and/or life with the possibility of parole.”

Before the final prayer for Jones, Hill closed speeches by saying to not lose hope for Jones even if the future looks bleak.

“I believe there is still hope,” Hill said. “I still believe that there’s things that we can do, that we can hopefully accomplish in the time that we have to save this man’s life. We can’t give up. I think there are things that we can do, and we should do them.”

Kaly Phan is a journalism sophomore and news reporter at The Daily.

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